Saturday, July 26, 2008

THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK (2008) d. Patrick Beacham

Written by Rick Trottier

As an undergraduate and then later as a graduate student, I learned an important lesson about history that has stuck with me ever since; that there are really only two types of historical writing. An historian can try to present their case as impartially as possible or they can take a clear stance and present a biased exploration of events and outcomes. The former methodology is likely to be the most accurate, but it is impossible to be truly unbiased, for no matter how much we strive we are bound to transmit some of our values into any intellectual pursuit. The latter approach can be successful as an opinion in essay form and be persuasive and compelling, but is doomed to being “history with an axe to grind” and can never be anything but jaundiced in nature. Film is a little like this in that a film maker can try to tell what is called a “balanced” story where the audience is left the freedom of choice as to their opinion, or the film maker can tell an “unbalanced” story and try to influence the viewer’s perspective. When I watched THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK, once I had ascertained whether it was a “balanced” or “unbalanced” viewpoint, I was able to appreciate the film maker’s efforts to relate his ideas even as I struggled with how those opinions/perceptions were being conveyed. In the end, by choosing to pontificate from an “unbalanced” point of view, the film maker created more problems than he probably wanted to.

THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK is a fictional film in the form of a roundtable discussion done as a quasi-mockumentary where a very clear viewpoint about a pair of seemingly unconnected topics is being examined. Confused? You really shouldn’t be. Patrick Beacham and Paul Gentry “locked” eight people in a comfortable and well-appointed conference room overseen by a “barista” to ruminate on the legacy of the Star Wars films now that the third prequel THE REVENGE OF THE SITH had premiered. As each person relates their feelings about the movie, its siblings and the films’ creator George Lucas, they begin exploring their own pasts, presents, principles and predilections, both philosophically and politically. It isn’t long before truths are revealed, convictions are challenged and tempers flare. In the end, it isn’t what each person believes that is as important as the freedom to believe and the value of respecting other people’s points of view.

Since THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK is not your usual cinematic project and format, it is not an easy movie to review. On the positive side, I felt that trying to set up a soapbox film commenting on some of the flashpoint issues of the past eight years and wrapping it up in the packaging of a Star Wars discussion is creative and ambitious. Patrick Beacham’s film was attractive, well shot and edited, and was very pleasingly scored. I wasn’t a big fan of the slow dissolves between “chapters” for visual reasons, but I understood the purpose. Trying to make it seem like “average folk” from many of the “walks of American life” are hashing out issues mundane and critical is also an interesting vehicle for delivering your opinion. The problem is that much of the criticism Mr. Beacham levels against George Lucas, artistically and creatively, he is just as guilty of himself. One of the wise sayings I was taught as a youth came back to mind forcefully as I watched THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK, “the pot shouldn’t call the kettle black”. Mr. Beacham consistently hammers the Star Wars prequels for their “wooden” acting and flat characters, but THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK suffers from both ends of the spectrum. The characters of Bill and The Barista, played by Michael Smith and Brittany Quist, were every bit as robotic and uninteresting as any of The Prequels’ characters. Even as handsome as both actors were, their visual appeal, especially that of Ms. Quist, was not enough to rescue their characters from their waxed paper aura. On the flip side, Lloyd, Caroline, Don and Andre’s characters suffered from terrible overacting, making them stand out like sore thumbs and rendering the less vibrant characters even more colorless. All of the characters were encumbered by a total lack of sincerity that was likely to be a failing of the script. At no time did I feel like I was looking at “people”, rather I felt like I was watching actors forcing reactions and exchanges that screamed “prefabricated”, and not in a good way. The soliloquies and interchanges of each character did not feel like theater come to The Silver Screen, it felt hammed up and entirely artificial. Each character was also a social caricature at best; at worst they were a stereotype that made the story feel even more disingenuous. If it was the intent of the film maker to emulate what he considered to be the weakest element of the Star Wars prequels, he succeeded brilliantly, but it certainly didn’t come across that way.

Patrick Beacham also railed against the overly preachy and unnecessarily drawn out stories of the Star Wars prequels. Both of these sins could be found in his calendar, and yet THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK has such an imposing list of social issues it tries to explore that the 111 minute run time was not nearly enough to discuss Star Wars and the troubles of the opening decade of the 21st Century too. The transition from being a somewhat light-hearted and comical debate about the merits of a film franchise to analyzing the seminal divisions tormenting America today was jarring and was never fully assuaged. Partly this was due to tackling too many topics, partly it was a fault of the caricaturized nature of the cast but it was also partly the fault of the concept. Trying to graft two such disparate ideas into the primary narrative concept of the movie may have been impossible. Social problems and political issues are serious and uncomfortable to face no matter how much we try to parody or lampoon them, yet it is essential to have dialogue on the kinds of topics Patrick Beacham raised. Star Wars and all of its cinematic science fiction relatives are just that, fiction, and the underlying nature of all fiction is to be entertaining. In the case of science fiction it has an even deeper intent, to provide escape. While Mr. Beacham does raise the point that looking too deeply into something like Star Wars or Harry Potter isn’t entirely likely to produce useful fruit, he is guilty of attempting something similar. To start his film with such a whimsical premise and then try to ascend a dramatic staircase ending in near violence caused by heated discussion and powerfully internalized beliefs may not be achievable. I found the two ideas to be polar in nature and equal and opposite in force and energy, only this time the rules of physics do not apply and the two opposites do not attract.

Finally, and this might be sour grapes, but taking such a powerful stance on such an unimportant topic like Star Wars (yes, I am a huge fan, but relegate the films to their proper place in my life) felt like an angry man ranting from the mountain top. To be fair, Patrick Beacham did present the alternate side of the argument and did have some characters whose support of the Star Wars prequels was passionate, but they didn’t seem to be the real mouthpiece of the director and the true weight of opinion felt very lopsided. After we pass our early forties, we all get to a point where we feel we’ve really learned something from our burgeoning life experience and would like to share it with the world. Sharing your experiences without sounding preachy, bitter, judgmental and strident is a challenge under any circumstance. I applaud Mr. Beacham for wrestling with some of the nerve-fraying themes of the modern age, but his anti-Lucas tirades just came across as someone who thought they knew better and as a result, a tad egotistical. Patrick Beacham did provide his film with a caveat when his character Lloyd went into a lengthy monologue about his life’s frustrations and failures and how much he wanted the new Star Wars movies to sweep him back to his innocent and optimistic past. Since Lloyd recognizes this dilemma in his own soul means Patrick Beacham sees it in himself as well, but that doesn’t come across as cleanly as I think he would have liked it to.

THE AUDIENCE STRIKES BACK has a surprising number of tidbits in its bonus features section. In addition to an audio commentary by Patrick Beacham and Paul Gentry, there is a 7 minute introduction for the feature film, as well as short introductions for the 6 minute “Blooper Reel” and the 2 minute “Deleted Scene” segments. In some respects, the three introductory segments work as well as any interview or “behind the scenes” featurette in allowing the viewer to really see inside the mind of Patrick Beacham, possibly in greater depth than he intended. There is an “Original Concept Graphics” section of two pages that is quite interesting and a pair of theatrical trailers for this film and a series of trailers for other Indie Pictures projects. There is also a segment called The Things that are Thor’s, which was a promo for a novel that Patrick Beacham and Paul Gentry created a number of years ago. It includes an introduction, a mini-featurette and a commentary of an airship design that were all quite compelling. This set of extras was both illuminating and entertaining and may have been the most satisfying part of my time spent with this disc.

Some friends and colleagues of mine have been fond of saying that it is never a good idea to reference films better than yours during the feature. Patrick Beacham’s characters run through an impressive list of great films and directors during their sometimes venomous litany against the Star Wars prequels and movies in general that have been made after 1980. Perhaps it was the invocation of the referencing curse that doomed this project to being a disappointment and consigned Mr. Beacham’s effort to being no better than the films for which he feels such vituperative scorn. In the end it may come down to another old saw, “just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean it’s better”.

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